A spike in the number of Indian students going abroad for Ph.D.s is leaving domestic universities short on recruits.
Debate about the country’s doctoral diaspora was sparked last month by Upendra Nongthomba, a professor of genetics at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, in a LinkedIn post expressing disbelief that his lab had received applications from only four aspiring students this year—many times fewer than in recent years.
“Last year my group hosted 12 summer project trainees … I would have been happy hosting any one of these bright students to do a Ph.D. in my laboratory. But all of them wanted a foreign Ph.D.,” he wrote.
Migration figures indicate that Nongthomba’s lab is unlikely to be the only one seeing a decline, with the Ministry of External Affairs estimating that the number of students going abroad—albeit also including undergraduates as well as postgraduates—is set to rise to 1.5 million this year, up from 1.3 million last year.
And Yatharth Gulati, co-founder of the consultancy Rostrum Education, which provides tutoring and college counseling services to Indian students applying internationally, told Times Higher Education that there had been a “notable increase” in the number of Indian Ph.D.s headed overseas, with the number of doctoral candidates contacting Rostrum this year having risen by 70 percent since 2022.
Gulati said many were won over by better employment prospects abroad and access to “state-of-the-art infrastructure.” Funding during the Ph.D. was also a big factor.
“Although there may be funding opportunities for research in India, overseas students often have access to a greater number of scholarships,” he said.
Noble Kurian, an assistant professor at Chandigarh University, cited similar reasons.
“Uncertainty about [a] Ph.D. and its fellowships are very evident in our country. In India, funding and fellowships are not regular, so the students are usually starved during their tenure,” he said.
Like many scholars, he shared the perception that Indian universities hiring early-career researchers prefer candidates with overseas experience and foreign degrees.
Recently, the All India Research Scholars Association, an umbrella body representing Indian Ph.D. students, urged the government to raise Ph.D. stipends by 60 percent, with an automatic upgrade for inflation every four years.
“Delayed revisions have imposed financial burdens due to rising living costs and inflation, hindering researchers’ commitment to impactful research,” the association wrote.
Its call has been backed by some politicians, including Shashi Tharoor, a member of Parliament who warned that “bureaucratic callousness” has discouraged many students from continuing a career in research. Writing on social media, Tharoor said a reappraisal of the stipend was overdue.
“Our stressed-out Ph.D. scholars deserve a long-overdue increase in their stipends,” he wrote. “How can they meet their daily needs and undertake research amid rising inflation?”
Ramgopal Rao, formerly the director of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said a 60 percent rise might be “difficult” to achieve, but he believed that New Delhi was seriously considering increasing stipends.
“I’m sure the government is already contemplating a 30 to 40 percent increase,” he said, noting that there were “multiple proposals” on the table.
For instance, New Delhi could adjust for inflation automatically every year. Another option could be for the government to adjust Ph.D. stipends so they are in line with salaries for entry-level jobs for bachelor’s degree holders.
“An entry-level job in the government sector [pays] much higher … so the Ph.D. tends to remain a last option,” he noted.